Hoisting the state championship trophy wasn’t the goal when Cullen Riner decided to return to coaching football at Osborne High School this year after a one-year hiatus. But it was how he ended the season Nov. 19 at Newton’s Fischer Field.
The Bulldogs secured their second Eight-Man Division I championship in four years with a 38-24 win over Saint Francis. The success, according to the 2016 HDN Coach of the Year, was due to hard work and a little good fortune
“There’s so much luck involved with winning a state championship just as far as kids staying healthy and all those other things you can’t control,” Riner said. “I knew there was some potential there, and they really came together as a group and gelled and improved probably as much as any group I’ve coached. It was a phenomenal year.”
Riner said he watched a “couple” of the Bulldogs’ games a year ago when John Scarbrough led the team to a 4-5 record. Scarbrough helped Riner return to the sideline in 2016.
“I felt like I needed to spend some time with my family,” Riner said.
“My wife and I talked pretty seriously about getting back into it, if we should or not. We decided it was a good thing to do for the kids. Coach Scarbrough wanted me back in it, so we decided to do it.”
A pair of his players were happy to close their prep football career with the same coach who helped them as an assistant to their first eight-man title as freshman.
“I think it helped a lot. He’s a good motivator,” senior Cullen Grabast said, “He pushes us to do the best, and if we’re not, we’ll do a drill 100 times if he doesn’t think it’s right. I think that helps, makes us do our best every time. Then when it comes to game time, it’s just natural.”
Riner wasn’t alone in thinking a state title was setting the bar a little high.
“I never dreamed of going to the state championship at the beginning of the year,” senior Justin Burch said. “As the season progressed, though, we came together as a team. Coach Riner said ‘We’re going to have to come together as a team to make it to state.’ We did what he said.”
Osborne rolled to a 3-0 start with lopsided wins over Thunder Ridge, St. John/Tipton Catholic and Lakeside before its first test of the season. The Bulldogs went to the fourth quarter against Pike Valley locked at 26-all. Osborne scored a fourth-quarter touchdown and added a crucial two-point conversion for a 34-32 win.
Easy wins over Solomon, Logan-Palco and Victoria followed to see the Bulldogs start 7-0 before drama returned in Week 8.
The Bulldogs beat Bennington 68-20 for their eighth win but lost Burch to a high ankle sprain. The forced Riner to start tinkering with the offense, moving Grabast, a running back, to quarterback. The good news was the Osborne coach already had started working on a contingency plan.
“We had sets in where Cullen played quarterback some anyway, so we ran more of that stuff that we already had in,” Riner said. “I kinda did that anticipating if something happens to somebody we have something else to go to, and it ended up kinda being something we leaned on, our spread stuff, more heavily.”
The defense also saw some switches as the Bulldogs prepared for their postseason run.
Derek Naegele, who started the year at defensive tackle and spent some time at end moved back to the second level.
“Byron Roenne really stepped up to play nose guard. As the year (went on), he really improved, and we were able to let him take that role over late in the season as our full-time nose guard,” Riner said. “Then that allowed us to move Derek back to his natural position at linebacker. I think our defense really started gelling at that point.”
Quentin Morris, who started the year at cornerback, also moved to defensive end.
“As the year moved on, I saw his ability to come up and make plays,” Riner said. “He was physical for his size, so he ended up playing defensive end from Week 8 all the way through the playoffs.”
The Bulldogs closed the regular season with a 78-16 win over Lincoln and rolled into the state final with convincing wins over Clifton-Clyde (64-16), West Elk (78-28) and Burlingame (62-16).
Osborne jumped out to a 16-0 lead over the Indians after the first quarter and lead 22-6 at the half. St. Francis scored 18 unanswered points in the third quarter to take a two-point advantage to fourth, threatening Osborne’s title run.
Grabast rushed for a pair of scores in the fourth quarter with Osborne winning the final quarter 16-0 to finish an undefeated state title run.
“It’s always great when you win. At the time, that wasn’t the goal. I thought we had a chance to have a good year,” Riner said.
“We weren’t the biggest team in the state. We had some fast kids, but it took them wanting to get it done, and they did.”